“Did you hear what happened in Japan?” Leonel asked me first thing on Friday morning.

“No,” I replied. “What’s up?”

“There was a huge earthquake. It measured 8.9 on the Richter Scale.”

While we ate breakfast, we looked on in horror at the footage of the tsunami sweeping through the port town of Sendai. The relentless waves claimed everything in their path, tossing cars like toys and ripping houses from their foundations. It was like the record breaking floods that hit southeast Quensland earlier this year, only worse. Much worse.

For half an hour, we watched the same images over and over, trying to absorb the impact of the disaster on the other side of the world. But then a more immediate threat came to light. Chile’s Minister for the Interior, Rodrigo Hinzpeter appeared on the screen warning that there was a risk of tsunamis along the country’s expansive coastline. There was no guarantee that the 17,000km of ocean stretching between Japan and Chile would serve as an adequate buffer in the wake of the quake. In a grave tone, Hinzpeter explained that everyone in low lying coastal regions needed to prepare to evacuate and follow all instructions.

When I got to work, waiting for me in the inbox was a message from the embassy for all Australians in Chile. In as few words as possible, it explained the threat of tsunamis and advised people in at-risk areas to stay tuned for more information from local authorities.

Here in Santiago, over 100km from the coast, there was no real threat and apart from the odd water-cooler conversation about the situation unfolding in Japan, life continued as normal.

But the news that night showed a completely different response up and down the co­untry. The Japanese disaster came just two weeks after the first anniversary of Chile’s own devastating earthquake and the ensuing tidal waves that killed so many.

With this memory fresh in people’s minds, nobody was going to take any risks. In the afternoon hundreds began to head for the hills, literally, taking tents, furniture and white goods. Anything they could carry. The cameras showed trucks and vans stacked to capacity, and sometimes beyond, as they headed for the safety of higher ground. At 10pm the main streets of Vina del Mar, a busy tourist city, were eerily empty, apart from the obligatory stray dog. It was like a ghost town.

Rodrigo Hinzpeter was still giving updates and the journalists were still peppering him with questions. He called a close to the press conference but the journo’s questions kept coming, even as he turned his back and walked away.

It had been predicted that the first big waves would hit mainland Chile around midnight but they weren’t sticking to the schedule. We went to bed at about 12.30 still wondering what would occur.

The next day, news about the affected regions filtered through slowly as we got on with our daily activities. Although the situation was not as bad as the authorities had feared, the massive swell had certainly left its mark.

One of the areas worst affected was Dichato, a fishing town in the south, where the waves had penetrated 100m along the shoreline. Seaside restaurants were flooded, fishing boats had disappeared and fish had been popped up in people’s yards. According to the reports, the town would probably be without water for four or five days.

In the north, strong waves destroyed the sea wall at Coquimbo causing minor flooding and disruptions. Somewhere else, the waves had swept 200m beyond the shore, destroying 200 houses. Even in some inland regions, the rivers had swelled, breaking their banks and damaging properties.

By 9pm on Sunday, the news reports were stating that the country had basically returned to normal. And with that, the focus returned to Japan with new footage of the original tsunami and the threat posed by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

While no lives had been lost in Chile, there were still 27 Chileans unaccounted for in Japan.

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